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Climate change and food sovereignty

By John Samuel

Climate change and economic policies are adversely impacting the food sovereignty of millions of people and both need to be combated. They both take away a basic human right – the right to adequate food

Read Part 1 of this article

There are two immediate concerns in the context of the possible consequences of global warming and changing weather patterns. The first is the increasing number of natural disasters, which may or may not have a direct connection with climate change. The second is the issue of food sovereignty. 

More and more communities and countries are losing their food sovereignty. Food sovereignty indicates the ability and power of a country or community to control and manage its own sources and modes of food production. Food sovereignty involves the right of people and the community over land, water and forests which would enable them to control the sources and means of production. There is a decrease in food production in many countries, particularly among small and marginal farmers. This has to do with both the changing weather pattern and the takeover of agriculture by corporate monopolies and rich countries. There is an increasing trend towards corporatisation of agriculture; millions of hectares of land have been taken over in Africa at the cost of small and marginal farmers and food sovereignty of the community. 

Along with air and water, food is the most important element necessary for the survival of every living species. Right to food is the first among the enabling rights of human beings. Food sovereignty has been taken away from the producers and farmers by their own nation-states, and then by huge corporations that monopolise technology. The modern notion of Power is related to the monopoly of technology and knowledge. Monopoly and control over technology is often used to take control of the food production and resources. Such corporatisation of agriculture in the name of “food security” and “green revolution”, usually provides little security and nor is it green. Such efforts take away the viability and sustainability of small and marginal farming. Eventually, this makes food less available, accessible and affordable. And eventually many communities and countries will be dependent on big companies and markets for their food. The lack of control of food undermines the human right to food. 

The adverse impacts of climate change on ecosystems also affect sovereignty over food production. First, because life cannot adapt as quickly as the climate is changing. We are experiencing unprecedented natural disasters. Don’t blame God, because these disasters are of our own making and come from unequal and unjust power relationships of extracting and exploiting natural resources -- forests, water, marine resources and air. Food decreases due to changing weather patterns -- untimely rain, decreased rainfall, and unusual drought. 

Secondly, desertification decreases the amount of arable land. Thirdly, migration from rural to urban areas increases due to lack of water, natural disasters and the unviability of small and medium farming. 

The urban poor across the world are environmental, economic and social refugees. The urban-centric, energy-intensive economic growth model induces rural to urban migration, which has reached unprecedented levels, and further accentuates the high carbon-emitting economic growth model. This, on the one hand, affects food production and the viability of sustainable agriculture in rural areas, and on the other hand increases human density in urban areas to unprecedented levels, with consequent pressure on environmental resources, demand for water and resultant pollution. The increasing number of urban slums and of urban poverty poses new challenges to the idea of food sovereignty and ecological sustainability. 

Mines and factories in the rural hinterlands are ejecting both carbon and poor people. Instead of addressing poverty, the factories are in the business of displacing and killing the poor. Polluting factories and corporatised agriculture will displace millions of marginal farmers and excluded communities at the receiving end of the extractive economic development paradigm. While the rich waste millions of tonnes of food, there are hundreds of millions of people who go to bed hungry every single day. This is unjust. This is a result of ecological as well as economic injustice. 

Bio-fuel and agro-fuel are also produced and monopolised by huge transnational corporations. Land is used for fuel and not for food. Monopoly of technology and economy leads to corporatisation of land, which leads to disempowerment of people, poverty, and food crises. 

The question, then, is not merely how much food is produced, but who is producing it and how and where and for whom

We are seeing a repetition of colonial sins with the way food is produced and distributed today. Some of the new “revolutions” to combat climate change and promote food security are manifestations of this new colonialism. Millions of hectares of land in Africa have been taken over by rich companies and rich countries. Advancing the Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the so-called new green revolution, is promoted by some of the most powerful companies and countries in the world. While we need to produce more food, one wonders whether such corporatisation of agriculture in Africa will not further impoverish a large majority of people experiencing hunger and injustice every single day. Apart from the question of how “green” are the proposed green revolutions, there is a serious concern that in the proposed promise of food “security”, the food sovereignty of the people of Africa and elsewhere will be compromised. As of now there is nothing much of “green” or “revolution” in the new search for monopoly control of natural resources and land in Africa. 

The question is whether the “green” revolution enriches the rich or enables the poor to have food on the plate. The new environmental and economic unviability of small and marginal farming also undermines the human dignity and human rights of farmers. Thousands of farmers in India have committed suicide because their dignity is violated. Farmers are the most dignified people in the world. They produce with their mind, soul and body. A farmer would rather protect this dignity with his death than lose it through the dehumanisation that comes with loss of control of production methods and the loss of food sovereignty. Pesticide resistance and patented crop varieties are among the many mechanisms that huge companies use to control production and ensure monopoly over nature. Yes, we need to produce more food. But who produces for whom, where and how does matter. 

Sustainable and eco-friendly small-scale agriculture and sustainable technology are key to food sovereignty of impoverished communities and countries. 

Food sovereignty of nations and people can only be realised by strengthening sustainable agriculture and protecting the right of small and marginal farmers to live in dignity. Governments must protect this without compromising the climate and environment. 

The struggles for justice and human rights have to be at every level. A person’s right to food is non-negotiable. The adverse impact of climate change and corporatisation of agriculture undermines our right to food.  We need to ask hard questions about the nature of consumption and the nature of the economic growth model. Climate change is an issue of justice, as is food rights. A call to act for justice -- ecological, economic and social -- should precede the technical negotiations on climate change. If human dignity is rooted in divinity, and the idea of divinity is rooted in our search for the truth, then the truth is that there is something terribly wrong and immoral in the way we exploit the beauty and bounty of the earth and all that makes it a sustainable habitat for millions of living species. Such a truth should help us to be free -- free to imagine different choices of life, consumption and living. A freedom that makes the earth and all in it sustain and thrive.

The time has come to rediscover the ethical assertion by the Chief of Seattle at the dawn of modern civilisation in the mid-19th century:

 “This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. One thing we know: our God is also your God. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator.”

(This is an expanded version of the keynote presentation at the International Interfaith Consultation on Climate Change in Bangkok on October 1, 2009)

Infochange News & Features, November 2009